Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark L. Louden

A German hymn popular among Amish and traditional Mennonites centers on humility, a cardinal virtue in Plain Anabaptist life.

Demut ist die schönste Tugend,
Aller Christen Ruhm und Ehr’,
Denn sie zieret unsere Jugend
Und das Alter noch viel mehr.

Humility is the most beautiful virtue,
The glory and honor of all Christians,
For it adorns our youth
And old age even more so.

It’s fair to say that humility is receding as a lodestar in many mainstream Americans’ lives, as a December 2019 article in the online publication Medium explored.1 Empathy, a hallmark of humility, has, according to the article’s author, lost ground to narcissism, especially in public life. The continued centrality of humility in Plain culture is one of many intangible ways in which Amish and traditional Mennonites stand apart from many of their non-Plain neighbors.

As observers of traditional Anabaptist groups have noted, their identity as people of faith is expressed visibly, most obviously in the ways they dress and groom themselves. Plain people read 1 Peter 5:5, for example, as a literal call to express their humility through what they wear.

… And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

Plain humility is encoded linguistically as well. In a manual on Christian (i.e., humble) living directed at Amish youth, there is a section devoted to how one should speak. Seven principles for appropriate speech are laid out, each supported by Scripture.

  1. To speak only the truth
  2. To be simple and straightforward in our speech
  3. To be “slow to speak”
  4. To return good for evil
  5. Sometimes it is better to be quiet
  6. To be consistent in our speech
  7. To be a good witness to non-Christians2

The anonymous editors of this manual do not suggest that any specific language is more or less suited to humble speech. However Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Plain people, which includes most Amish and Old Order Mennonites, do often perceive a link between the maintenance of their German-related vernacular language alongside standard German for devotional purposes and humility.

Both plain dress and “keeping Dutch” are connected in an interesting quote collected by the Old Order historian Amos B. Hoover and included in his wonderful book, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage. In a conversation with Hoover, a Weaverland Conference Mennonite minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), shared the following thoughts.

Ich meen, es Deitsch as mir hen is ken gschriwweni Schprooch, awwer is genunk fer helfe uns zammehalde. Gott hot die Schprooche verwechselt un es hot gedient zum Gude. Nau velleicht sette mer net schaffe fer en unified Schprooch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die Gmee war, hot en aldi Fraa grode, “Die Schulkinner sette aa wennig lanne ihre Greiz draage, mit die Gleederdracht.” Un ich meen aa so mit die Schprooch. S’is gut wann sie wennig gschpott warre.3

In my opinion, though the German we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.

Plain people are not the only Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to associate humility with how one dresses and what and how one speaks. So-called “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants who comprised the great majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers into the 20th century, expressed sensibilities much like those of Luke N. Good.

Below is an excerpt from a dialog in Pennsylvania Dutch that appeared in 1841 in a German-language Lutheran newspaper published in Easton, PA. Although the author and most if not all of his readers were native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, German was at that time the preferred medium for writing. Whenever Pennsylvania Dutch was used in print, it marked a shift to a more direct, colloquial style that connected author and reader closely. The two men in the dialog from which the text below is excerpted were members of the same Lutheran congregation.

Wer sei Schprooch verlaesst, daer schemmt sich noch vun sei Eldre un verlaesst noch sei Religion un watt en Maddedischt. Un is denn die englisch Schprooch vornemmer un schenner as die deitsch? Ich denk net. Unser alder Parre hett immer gsaat dass die deitsch Schprooch die vornemmscht un bescht waer, un sell glaawich aa. Awwer sobald der Hochmut in die junge Leit faahrt, wolle sie englisch sei un schemme sich, Deitsch zu schwetze, as wann’s Sind un Schand waer.

Waar’s Deitsch gut genung fer mich, so denk ich, is’s aa gut genung fer mei Kinner. Sie sin deitsch un solle aa deitsch bleiwe. So viel Englisch wie sie breichte, lanne sie ennihau uf der Schtroos.

Whoever abandons his language is ashamed of his parents and will leave his faith and become a Methodist. And is the English language really loftier and more beautiful than German? I don’t think so. Our old pastor always said that the German language was the loftiest and best and I believe that, too. But as soon as pride enters young people, they want to be English and are ashamed of speaking German, as if that were a sin and scandal.

If German was good enough for me, then I think it is good enough for my children, too. They’re German and should stay German, too. They’ll learn all the English they’ll need in the street, anyway.

In prose and poetic texts in the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania Dutch writers often lamented the tendency for youth to stray, which aside from preferring English was also reflected in their worldly fashions. One example that appeared in several German-language newspapers in Pennsylvania starting in the 1860s was a reader’s letter titled “Teite Hosen un Ständups mache der Mann net” (Tight Pants and Standup Collars Do Not Make the Man).4 The letter concludes with this verse:

Fer weiti Hupps un teiti Hosse
Nemmt mer besser sich in Acht,
Sie sin graad wie falschi Rose,
Zum Verfiehre yuscht gmacht.
Zwar gucke sie recht fei un schee,
Doch wer kann dehinner seh?

Of wide hoops and tight pants
One had better beware;
They are like fake roses,
Made just to lead astray.
They may look quite fancy and pretty,
Yet who can see through them?

Though the author of this poem was almost certainly a Fancy Dutch male, the sentiments he expresses align well with contemporary Plain values. Amish and traditional Mennonite women have never worn hoop skirts and still today males in the most traditional Amish groups, including the Swartzentruber and Nebraska Amish, wear collarless shirts and loosely fitting trousers.

The spirit of the “Tight Pants” text is echoed in the Pennsylvania Dutch poem below from 1870, in which the “poor soul” quoted prefers both stylish clothing and English over her native tongue.

So schteck ich do in meine Hupps
Un bin en aarmi Seel,
Ausse glatt un inne Schmutz,
So simmer unni Fehl.
Un wann ich yuscht drei Sent noch hab,
So muss ich doch in Schtoor.
Datt muss der letschte Kupper fatt,
So geht’s vun Yaahr zu Yaahr.
Schwetzt ennich epper zu mir Deitsch
Un froogt mich, ‘Kannscht du des?”
So saag ich awwer jo net “Ja”,
Ich saag in Englisch, “Yes!’5

That’s how I am in my hoops,
A poor soul,
Smooth on the outside and dirty on the inside,
That’s how we are without fail.
And when I’m down to my last three cents
I still have to go to the store.
That’s where the last copper has to go,
So it goes, year in and year out.
If someone speaks to me in Dutch
And asks, “Can you understand?”
Then of course I don’t say “Ja”,
I say in English, “Yes!”

Just as Plain people ensure the survival of the Pennsylvania Dutch language in the twenty-first century, so too do they continue the tradition once shared by their “Fancy” neighbors of linking both language and modest dress with the time-honored virtue of humility.


1 Brooke Meredith, “Kindness and Humility Have Taken a Nosedive in America,” Medium, December 29, 2019. (Accessible at: https://medium.com/swlh/kindness-and-humility-have-taken-a-nosedive-in-america-67a1d912d53c).

2 1001 Questions on the Christian Life, Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1992, p. 113.

3 Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54.

4 Ludwig A. Wollenweber, Gemälde aus dem pennsylvanischen Volksleben, Philadelphia and Leipzig: Schäfer and Koradi, 1869, p. 100.

5 Reading Adler, February 25, 1870.

2 thoughts on “Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

  1. The language I heard growing up spoken by the folks of my grandfather’s generation and all of the local (Adams County Indiana) Amish was ‘Schweitzerdietsch’ not PA Dutch, but there were many similarities. Hearing it again as an adult, having in the meantime learned Hochdeutsch heavily inflected with Wienerisch, I noticed how many English words are mixed in, especially anything having to do with technology. Reading the above, the deitsch first and then the English, I got a great sense of joy (if not humility) with being totally stumped by two words – Maddedischt, and ennihau (Methodist and anyhow). Back in my dissertation days, decifering 16thC. texts, if I got stumped I learned to read it aloud and listen to myself, rather than paying too close attention to the spelled words themselves. I guess I could have used that method here to good advantage. Thanks for a great article!

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  2. Thanks for sharing your feedback! Yes, Amish Swiss German (“Shwitzer”) does indeed share similarities with PA Dutch, in part because many Swiss Amish also speak it, making them trilingual (when you add English). Fun fact: the percentage of English-derived words in PA Dutch and Shwitzer hovers around 15%, which is about half of the figure for loanwords in Standard German, which are mostly from French/Latin (e.g., Musik), but also Greek (e.g., Biologie), and, more recently, English (e.g., Computer). And your observation about how to decipher a text from a language that is mainly spoken and not written is spot on: reading something aloud often helps. Mark L.

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